Eco-Friendly Urban Environment

Columnist Sam Koch
Posted on Tuesday 18th August 2009

Rural Pennsylvania and Detroit might not appear to have much in common. But their histories—and struggles—prove otherwise.

Like Detroit, the auto-capital of the world for most of the 20th century, Pennsylvania had a lucrative industry that went to shambles. In 19th century America, Pennsylvania was the king of coal production, driving the railroad industry and westward expansion. By the 1920s, however, the Pennsylvania coal industry faced a major crisis: production outweighed demand, with consumers turning to other fossil fuels. This defining feature of the geographic and social landscape of Pennsylvania became obsolete in only a few short years, leaving thousands of unemployed people with limited skills.

The impact of decline in coal production is still profound in many areas of the state. Former coal capitals like Bethlehem, Allentown, and others across western Pennsylvania remain largely abandoned decades after the coal industry’s decline. But Pennsylvania has tried to fill the gap left by one failed industry with the start of a burgeoning one.

Currently, the Keystone state has roughly 39,000 “green” jobs, many of which stem from increased federal and state funding. In an attempt to heal the economic wounds left by its ailing steel and coal industries, Pennsylvania has supported the growth of environmental initiatives from both the private and public sector.

Local companies have taken the hint. They are investing in green technology at rapid rates. PSE&G was recently given regulatory approval to invest $515 million toward solar projects by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU). Pennsylvania’s Governor Ed Rendell also recently wooed the Spanish company Gamesa Corporacio Tecnologica, a leader in wind energy, to move its U.S. headquarters to Philadelphia. Both companies will invest in factories and other businesses located throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the upcoming years.

Perhaps the most intriguing initiative that’s stemmed from dying manufacturing industries, though, comes in the form of re-educating workers for green jobs. The New Jersey state-funded program called the Center for Energy and Environmental Training (CEET) uses facilities in Trenton, Camden, Newark, and Somerset to train individuals in solar panel installation, energy efficiency, and other green occupations. Many local energy companies, like PSE&G, have hired recent graduates of the program, giving hope to those who have endured frequent lay-offs for decades.

So, what does all this have to do with Detroit’s troubles?

Like Pennsylvania in the 1920s, Motor City has had to endure the pains of faltering demand. Unemployment currently stands at roughly 18 percent—nearly double the national average. Home foreclosures have been consistently higher than the rest of the country since as early as 2007. There are over 80,000 abandoned buildings and homes in that city alone, leaving the area looking like a ghost town. If these economic conditions persist, Detroit may well become the first abandoned American city of the 21st century.

While many in Washington and Michigan are attempting to bolster the automotive industry to promote job growth, a change of industry may be just what the doctor ordered.

If programs like CEET take root in Detroit, thousands of former auto and steel plant workers would be given the opportunity to transfer their current skills and experience to a new industry with enormous growth potential. The abandoned buildings of Detroit provide enormous reconstruction possibilities, as well as giving small business owners the chance to create new operations that support sustainability.

Provided that city and state officials are willing to get creative (and fork over funding), Detroit’s fate would no longer be tied inextricably to General Motors or Ford. In essence, moving toward an eco-friendly urban environment would give the struggling city and its citizens something they haven’t experienced in quite a while: independence, and a fighting chance.

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